Portraits in the Graveyard: An Unexpected Look Into the History of Organized Crime in St. Louis

Graves defaced by some force, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Graves defaced by some force, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Our trip to St. Louis has resulted in a rather strange and entirely unexpected journey for my sister and I. I had heard about the morbid beauty of the gravestone statues at the Calvary and Bellefontaine Cemeteries. We discovered intensely dramatic and artistic pieces adorning many graves. Worn by the elements and, possibly, defaced by vandals over centuries, the weathered sculptures stood as eerie sentinels throughout the cemetery.

Statues on top of gravestones at Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Gravestone statue, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

In addition to the artistic aspect of our search, we were also aware of that within Calvary Cemetery were the graves of Civil War General (and devil-may-care portrait taker – seriously, google it) William Tecumsah Sherman, playwright Tennessee Williams, and original civil rights fighter, Dred Scott.

After finding two of the three, we drove around the expansive grounds, stopping to photograph the striking statues. As dusk began to settle, we decided it would be prudent to find our way through the gates before closing.

Winding our way around the maze of unmarked streets, we found a large section of graves with small photographs built into the marble. It was somewhat unclear from the car to see what the photographs were of, so we carefully weaved our way through the markers. It was then we saw these:

Gravestone portrait, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Gravestone portrait, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Grave portrait, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Grave portrait, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Grave after grave of tragically young men posing for portraits. We noticed that many of the names were ethnically Italian and an alarming number had died between 1924-1932. Without much knowledge of the St. Louis area, we assumed their had been an epidemic that had claimed large numbers in specific neighborhoods, but after returning to our hotel, we could find no record of a disease epidemic during that time frame. What we did find was far more sinister (and intriguing).

Ask me to name prolific, early 20th century mafia cities and I would have come up with Chicago, New York, and Boston. Probably never would have landed on St. Louis until I’d run through the remainder of the coast cities and a few in the South. Turns out St. Louis was home to at least 5 gangs, who frequently swapped the strong-hold and held court in the streets.

In my initial research, I’ve been able to find some information on Sicilian gang, The Green Ones, and, an Italian faction, the Pillow Gang (so named for the pillow its leader carried with him after a couple well place shots affected his ability to comfortably sit). Another group factored into the warring was the Cuckoo Gang.

This preliminary research has piqued the researchers in us to find out what happened to these men. We ended up going back to the cemetery the next day and photographing dozens of graves with the idea that we would determine their fates. We saw thousands of graves across the cemetery in those two days, but weren’t drawn to try to discover the identities of them all. It was the pictures, the literal face-to-a-name that made us want to know more.

Who were these men? Fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, who also played a role in the criminality of a city. It’s easy to find information on the leaders of these gangs and their eventual outcomes. Many succumbing to a life lived by the gun, but what of these foot soldiers?

I have no delusions that all of these graves hold the remains of St. Louisans with ties to organized crime. There are many family members, friends, and neighbors that are undoubtedly buried alongside them. I intend on including the information we find on these people as well, simply as an honest depiction of our research.

While this is a seemingly morbid journey to embark on, it’s a result of an insatiable curiosity that was piqued and a need to organize the world in a large series of connections. It’s an in depth, intimate way to learn about a piece of the history of St. Louis and the Midwest.

This research will become a series of posts as we find out more and I would love anyone with any ideas, suggestions, or great books or websites on St. Louis organized crime to leave a comment.

Advertisements

Why We Fill Our Museums with Lies

Vancouver - Dec 2010 013I have a tiered collection of soap boxes that I like to scale every once in a while and proselytize about all the things the world is doing wrong and the role that you are playing in its downfall.

The tallest, indicating the need for my loudest sermons, is reserved for my rail against the way America teaches history. Beyond out right lies about discoveries, criminality and immorality, our collective history is taught from a singular view-point. The rich, white male. These men are then carved into marble heroes. We’re taught to idolize and accept without questioning the accuracy of what we are taught.

These heroifications are the reason Oval Office extracurriculars dominate headlines and create a morality backlash. We’ve been taught that people in positions of social or political influence are above human behavior. They should not have a history that includes any poor judgment, miscalculated goals, or indiscretions.

Because lord knows we don’t…

Museums and historical sites have a sordid habit of playing into these historical compartmentalization. The majority of a museums’s space is generally dedicated to history as experienced or viewed through masculine, white eyes. Once they have finished teaching you the “history” they will occasionally include black history or woman’s history or, very infrequently, LGBTQ history.

These separations teach us that their history is not our history. It doesn’t even run parallel, as subconsciously communicated through the size, depth of knowledge, and attention given to these exhibits. These are histories of less significance and their impact is only slightly felt and, even then, only within the segregated groups.

The labels put on these histories are accepted as necessary qualifiers to identify whose history we are learning. Why do we accept these labels, when qualifiers such as white history or man history seem like silly redundancies? It is assumed that when we use the word history without specification we are talking about the rich, white male story.

By teaching singular history, you are teaching an egocentric, singular view of the world. Putting on those labels creates a history for you and him, her over there and me, rather than OUR history. It becomes a fractured story that we then use in our lives as an excuse to continue to live as a segregated global community. We assume that because we have no collective history that it is impossible to understand each other.

I’m not arguing against the individual histories that help identify a group of people. There are certainly experiences that my ancestors as white Europeans do not share with Africans or people of the First Nations. But the museums that present events or social ideas should not limit their points of view to the majority. By doing this the majority becomes the self-appointed authority, even in situations where population shifts have made them racially a minority.

A culture teaches this way to make themselves appear important and to aid in assuming a role of dominance. A national story of moral righteousness and strength in character portrays an indomitable force. The damaging side effect is the delicate façade created. The nation is now forced to cower behind these paper heroes hoping they will hold. Of course, the obvious irony is the strength of character that comes from accepting responsibility and allowing growth in the wake of errors.

The unfortunate reality is that museums are forced to tell false stories and create heroic portrayals. The concealed truths and, often, blatant lies, are a result of thinly veiled demands. Donors with a vested interest in keeping clean historic reputations will only donate with caveats on how the information is presented and what parts of the story must be left out.

Essentially we are selling our history to the highest bidder. If they would like to stay open, museums have little choice but to accept the money or artifacts within the stipulations. The rich have created our history. And will continue to do so, unless we began to demand otherwise.

First, donate time and money, when you can, to museums, historic sites, and other non-profit preservation organizations. It would take a significant amount for most museums to become independent of large donors with agendas, but…I hate to say it…anything helps.

Secondly, don’t accept that the history that you’ve been taught is, in fact, the truth. When you visit historic sites and museums, ask questions. And then see through the well-crafted and rehearsed answers.

Finally, cultivate your own knowledge. Start with James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America for a more involved conversation on the buying of our history. Then read, research, and explore with a critical eye.

This seemingly out of nowhere post was a result of the incredibly honest, refreshing museums in and around St. Louis. I’m hoping to get a post up soon about the surprising way they presented our history.

City Museum of St. Louis is a Catacomb of Sculpted Adventure (Pictures)

Not so much a museum as a giant fun land, void of creepy clowns (for the most part) that becomes a wormhole of time. There is a certain whimsy to getting lost in the catacombs of sculpted adventure. Bob Cassilly transformed a former shoe factory into a separate time and space using only objects reclaimed within the borders of St. Louis. Read more in this 2012 Mental Floss article.
???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????

CityMuseum4

CityMuseum5

CityMuseum6

???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????

I Accidentally Ate St. Louis

I don’t fashion myself much of a foodie beyond a willingness for adventurous eating and an obsession with Top Chef. But since so much of travelling for me is about tradition, I’m voracious in my need to nosh on the local must-eats of a destination. Beyond BBQ and Budweiser, I had little idea about the native foods of St. Louis.

Best Celebration of a Condiment

International Horseradish Festival

Bloody Mary competition, International Horseradish Festival, Collinsville, IL

Bloody Mary competition, International Horseradish Festival, Collinsville, IL

If you don’t fear the flatlanders, cross the border into Collinsville, IL. The quaintly nestled suburb throws a party for the hardy root the first weekend in June. Among the average fair…fare were a pricey but, ultimately worth it, Bloody Mary with cucumber vodka. A refreshing splash that cut through the horseradish for the spice meek like myself. A perfect sip-n’-stroll beverage.

The hidden gem was the horseradish bruschetta served by the Chamber of Commerce and benefiting the Miner’s Institute Foundation. For $3 we got enough to split and it was the a great snack before the Bloody Mary competition. Sadly, the audience didn’t get to judge the 8 competitors, but we did get to sample. Truly, small town Midwest at its finest.

They Said It Was Good and They Weren’t Lying

Crown Candy Kitchen and Bogart’s Smokehouse

A winding line out the door is usually a good indication that the food served is worthy of your time (or in the age of the celebrichefs, a segment on their latest episode).I found that I would have gladly put up a tent, unfolded my camp chair, and pulled out the bags boards, if the wait had necessitated. Luckily, we only had to wait about a 15 minutes at each (although those having to endure intoxicating smells at Bogart’s for longer were rewarded with a free rib while in line).

Gratuitous B accented with L and T. Crown Candy Kitchen, St. Louis, MO.

Gratuitous B accented with L and T. Crown Candy Kitchen, St. Louis, MO.

Crown Candy Kitchen is a 100-year-old soda fountain and, yes, candy kitchen in Old North St. Louis. Expect all of the tradition of a malt shop, but be prepared to be perplexed by the logistics of trying to eat a BLT with a pound of bacon. My sister and I split it, but still found it impossible to gracefully keep the deliciousness all together.

Remember those old cartoons where the wafting scent of a delectable meal would curl it’s self into a hand and then seductively motion for the famished character to follow the smell?

Turns out…actually possible.

Bogart’s Smokehouse, across from the Soulard Farmer’s Market, lured market goers and 9-5’ers on lunch break to join the half-block line. Our main dishes, pulled pork and beef brisket, were served with guilt-inducing pork skins, deviled egg potato salad untainted with ridiculousness like celery, baked beans, and slaw. Four sauce offerings, including their own Pineapple Express, on each table solidified Bogart’s legitimacy as a STL BBQ mecca.

Eh…and Not in the Cute Canadian Way

Molly’s in Soulard

Toasted ravioli, a St. Louis tradition. Molly's in Soulard, St. Louis, MO

Toasted ravioli, a St. Louis tradition. Molly’s in Soulard, St. Louis, MO

In a fully gentrified neighborhood, something we noticed was a work in progress throughout St. Louis, Molly’s features cabana-style booths and stand alone tables in a spacious patio space. The three outdoor bars, squeezed between neighboring brick buildings and old trees strung with bare bulbs, lend themselves to the communal charm of a backyard Midwest grill out. If only the food were as delightsome.

The menu featured expected NOLA-inspired dishes like alligator rangoon, but also included a distinctly St. Louis appetizer, toasted ravioli, which was, regrettably, the meal high. We went with a shrimp po’boy and the Bourbon Street jambalaya, both of which did the job in satiating hunger, but were short of amazing.

Molly’s also lacked prompt, friendly service. As a former waitress, I’m always willing to chalk up a sub-par performance to an off night, but it was frustrating to repeatedly be passed by our waiter without refilling water, picking up plates, or, even taking our order, long after the universal menu’s-closed signal.

A Little Piece of Portland…If You Must

2 Girls, 4 Wheels

The food truck game has reached St. Louis.

It’s like a modern-day Lewis and Clark…in reverse…with good food…and less exploitation.

We were clued in to the food trucks by a local and made a random selection based on the menu and dirty pop culture reference. I’m not one to be swayed by the inclusion of ‘gourmet’ as an insinuation of elevated taste, but swayed by my Cheesehead, I went for the grilled cheese with two kinds of the fancy stuff. A little sad and soggy by the time I got to eat it 45 minutes later, but still flavorful enough that I know straight from the truck it would’ve been stretched-out-stringy-cheese perfection.

The highlight came in veggie form with Parmesan brussel sprouts. Obscene. We finished the meal with our first taste of gooey butter cake, another STL invention. I declared it heaven on a fork, while my (over) discerning sister proselytized that it wasn’t beyond her culinary abilities. A deceleration she will now be forced to prove.

Protect Your Wit…Go With the Chicken

Hodak’s

Among the thousands of picnickers at the Shakespeare Festival in Forest Park, we saw many-a cheese and crackers nibblers and Chinese take-out pass-rounders, but I think we found the perfect way to capitalize on a truly STL experience. After picking up our dinner, we made our way to the park. A way that included multiple wrong turns, parking frustrations, and swarms of people, so by the time settled, it had been nearly an hour since we’d gotten our food.

I fully expected to find fried chicken thoroughly wilted by grease and condensation. What I found was still crispy wings (aided by a slice of white bread included in the to-go container) with the perfect annoy-your-neighbor-but-not-the-whole-crowd crunch and in a stolen taste of the vinegar-based slaw (the right away to do it), I found picnic heaven.

Well, It’s a Good Thing I Don’t Live Here

Gus’ Pretzels and Ted Drewes

While a sit-down, scrumptious spread is appreciated for the memories it creates, cheap, quick bites are the foundation of psychosis-inducing cravings.

Gus' Pretzels. St. Louis, MO.

Gus’ Pretzels. St. Louis, MO.

Gus’ Pretzels was a quick stop before the Anheuser-Busch Brewery Tour, but I could have stayed all day gorging myself on the warm, salty snack and watching the pretzel twister do his thing. Awwwww yeah. (If you get the reference, you and I can be best friends…forever)

Ted Drewes, a St. Louis sundae staple, took us two tries. We drove by on a Saturday night and quickly abandoned our plans after seeing a line at least a hundred deep. We had better luck for our patience mid-day on Friday and spent 10 minutes debating our choice. Concrete or sundae? Cardinal Sin or Southern Delight? Or maybe Cratercopernicus? Thank god for a decisive sister and the s’more concrete she selected.

I…Can’t…Even

Tenacious Eats

Tenacious Eats at Meyer's Grove. St. Louis, MO.

Tenacious Eats at Meyer’s Grove. St. Louis, MO.

Seriously. I can’t. Our experience at Tenacious Eats was the most delicious fun we had the whole week. They are getting their very own post, so that I can laud and love them into the egotistical atmosphere.

When Your Travel Companion is a Bitch

St. Louis Courthouse and Gateway Arch

St. Louis Courthouse and Gateway Arch

I am a bitch to travel with.

I refuse to sleep. I’m picky about what I eat. And I want to see it all.

While I may apologize for how my travel-ness sometimes presents itself, I won’t change the way I traverse my trips. I will come home exhausted and disheveled, but enlightened and so learned that I will start planning my next trip before I’ve even unpacked.

Travel isn’t vacation. Travel is experience.

Leisure is for Sunday mornings back at home when you sleep until noon, move to the couch about 12:13, and spend the day watching censored movies on TBS.

When I travel, I tend to follow the simple rule: if it can be done at home, there’s no point in doing it while you travel. While exceptions are inevitable, I’ve found that the greatest experiences come when I stay closest to that rule. Especially in these three areas:

1. Sleeping

Accommodations are not for luxury and decadence. Their purpose is to provide a place for the three to four hours of sleep required each night to ensure function the following day. Hours can also be banked. Skip a nights sleep and splurge on six the following. As long as my room has a lock on the door and lacks insecta or other pests, it fulfills its necessary duty.

2. Eating

If you eat at McDonald’s when you travel, there’s a special level of hell for you and your laziness. The only time this could come, even slightly. close to acceptable is at 3am, when your judgment is already impaired. So much of experiencing a new place is eating local. Defining dishes need to be eaten in their neighborhoods, elbow to elbow with their creators.

3. Doing

Always go to the major (and minor) tourist traps in a city. Experience the postcards, but then experience life as it’s actually lived in your destination. Go to sporting events, festivals, art shows, plays. The things that a culture celebrates and how they do so will give you a deeper insight to who they truly are.